Your toothbrush looks innocent enough sitting on your bathroom sink. But before you put it in your mouth, consider this: the average toothbrush can contain 10 million bacteria or more—including E. coli and Staph, according to a study at the University of Manchester in England. Yuck.
What’s inside your mouth?
At any given time, there are 100-200 species of oral bacteria living in your mouth. “In an unbrushed mouth, there can be as many germs as a dirty bathroom floor,” says Ann Wei, DDS, a prosthodontist based in San Francisco. In addition, your toothbrush is a little bacteria magnet, attracting the little buggers from several sources: If you store your toothbrush on or next to the bathroom sink, it gets contaminated from splashing from washing hands — and whatever you are washing off your hands is getting splashed back as well.
The toilet and your toothbrush
If you really want to gag, think about what happens when you flush with the toilet lid open. Charles Gerba, Ph.D., Professor, Microbiology & Environmental Sciences, University of Arizona College of Public Health, points out that bacteria and viruses falling from toilet spray or plumes “remain airborne long enough to settle on surfaces throughout the bathroom.” An English study found that diarrhea-causing bacteria from a lidless flush flew as high as 10 inches above the toilet. Scientists don’t have evidence of loads of people actually getting sick from toilet plume, let alone from using toilet plume-coated toothbrushes.
And if you drop your brush on the floor, does the five-second rule apply? Nope. It is coming into contact with toilet spray particulate that has settled there plus anything else that has been tracked in on people’s feet.
However, toilet spray is no big deal when it comes to your health, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). The organization emphasizes that although toothbrushes have been found to carry bacteria (including from feces), there is no solid proof that this will actually harm you. Any way it is, you still want to take precautions.
Don’t use plastic containers
Do you store your toothbrush in an airtight container? Don’t. The toothbrush can’t dry out between brushing, which encourages mold growth. Also, if you store all the family toothbrushes together in one container, the bacteria can spread from one to the other if the heads are touching. That’s an especially bad idea if one person is sick. Along the same lines, it’s possible for germs to be transmitted from one brush to another by sharing toothpaste.
How to keep it clean
Now that you are sufficiently revolted, are you ready to start treating your brush a little better? Here’s what to do to keep your toothbrush as bacteria-free as possible.
The ADA has some pretty simple rules to follow:
1. Don’t share your toothbrush.
Duh. You could swap pathogens.
2. Rinse it well after every use. Wash off any remaining food particles and toothpaste. (We can also personally vouch for the vigorous wrist-flicking method.)
3. Don’t let anyone else’s toothbrush head touch yours. If you store several toothbrushes in the same holder, the CDC advises not letting the brush heads touch each other.
4. Replace it at least every three to four months. Toothbrushes become less effective over time. Swap in a new one before this if the bristles become visibly frayed.
5. Skip the disinfectants and sanitizers. According to the ADA, there’s not a ton of research on toothbrush sanitizing. And the CDC recommends against soaking toothbrushes in disinfecting solutions or mouthwash, which might just provide more opportunities for cross-contamination. To avoid damaging your toothbrush, they also advise against trying to use microwaves, dishwashers, or ultraviolet sanitizing devices.